Anwar Sadat slaps his hands together smartly -- a kind of crackling military gesture, accompanied by a word in Arabic -- and promptly some guy materializes holding a globe, which he sets on the patio table. We are at the Egyptian president's house on the Nile Delta, and we are about to get some geopolitical instruction as he describes, with a wooden matchstick, the arc of Soviet influence in which he sees himself, the Gulf, the oil and the shipping lanes increasingly encircled.

This is no surprise. Wherever we go in the Middle East, whomever we talk to, the Arab-Israeli conflict is formally discussed in two ways. One is in this context of Soviet encroachment and political success, which the Arabs see as being abetted by the Israeli refusal to make a generous deal with the Palestinians and which the Israelis, on the contrary, see as an additional danger and reason not to. The other is the more familar legalistic context, in which every codicil, nuance and subparagraph in the relevant documents and public statements is put under the jeweler's glass and then argued over interminably.

Yet hearing it all -- the grand sweep strategic appraisals and the preoccupation with the minutiae of wording -- I kept hearing something else: a voice, an idiom, a range of considerations and a method of diagnosing the trouble and prescribing a remedy that put me in mind of nothing so much as the proceedings in a domestic relations court.

This has become a distinctive, even weird, international struggle in that there is a disarmingly personal, family quarrel-like quality to it. But most murders, after all, occur among people who are related or know each other, and I don't mean this quality makes the stakes any less high or the risks and suffering any less acute -- only that the conflict exudes a curious kind of bloody-minded intimacy. Everything seems finally to get interpreted here in terms of someone's bruised sensibilities or someone else's idiosyncratic pigheadedness or the various vanities and insecurities one associates with close human relationships rather than heavy dealings among nations.

The recent resignation of the jaunty defense minister Ezer Weizman from the Begin cabinet seemed to generate less policy analysis in Israel, for instance, than family-counseling type insights: as Weizman had a good-buddy old soldiers' relationship with Sadat and as Sadat trusted and liked him, how would his departure and the elimination of this camaraderie affect Sadar himself?

And, sepaking of Sadat, had he been ruined, as many suppose, by his inability to bring others (the king of Jordan, the king and royal princes of Saudi Arabia) into the deal or to get anything acceptable for the Palestinians from Begin? One of his cabinet ministers expressed despair to us over what has befallen Sadat and his position in the Third World in general and the Islamic world in particular as a consequence of his so-far unavailing intervention on the Palestinians' behalf. Is Sadat just being swashbuckling and fake-indifferent in his insistence that he does not feel betrayed by events or by the fact that he has got nothing much, or nothing so hard to get, from Israel?

Begin, we were told in Jerusalem, had been feeling "unloved" because no one appreciated what he actually did give up. He said something similar himself: look what we have done already. Could he be made to do more now? "My feeling is that he is not ready," wise old Uncle Anwar advises. A diplomat adds that Begin had gone to his "emotional margins." People in power and as its edges throughout the region sit and speculate about King Hussein of Jordan -- his mood, his motives in staying out, what can be expected to tempt him in and how angry (allegedly very) he is at the American administration. They psychoanalyze Prince Fahd and the other Saudis -- except for Begin, that is, who addresses us on the slightly softened Fahd declaration concerning Israel in a voice exactly on pitch with those great aunts of yours and mine who have refused to speak to each other for the past 40 years. "You tell Prince Fahd in my behalf . . . ," Begin starts his reply to Katharine Graham in that studied huff one knows all too well from a hundred hapless attempts at family reconciliation.

The "family" I discerned in all this was not some ethnic, Semitic construct just waiting to be reassembled in joyous reunion. I don't buy that. Egyptian soldiers and Westernized Jews and desert tribesmen are not just some historically disarranged version of the Waltons. They are "family" principally in the sense of being people who somehow -- and they all know it now -- are stuck with each other, living in various rooms of a bound and finite house, nervous (or most of them anyway) about the same prowlers in the garden and the same dangerous-craxy relations two rooms down.

This proximity and the shared destiny it implies are at the heart of the policy argument. When you are in Israel you will be shown again and again the tight and narrow places that separate the Israelis from their enemies now and the even tighter places that separated them before the land-acquisitions of the Six-Day War, 13 years ago.From former-Jordan, they point out, you can readily shell the Knesset; and where Israel is most densely populated, the strip of land between Jordan and the sea was pencil thin and most dangerous. From this the Israelis conclude -- unexceptionably, they are absolutely right -- that they cannot have even redimentary security with sworn enemies and killers at that pre-1967 range. But there seemed to me to be an ominously categorical and one-dimensional aspect to the reasoning as presented by Begin himself, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir (the man he tried to replace Weizman with) and many others.

They seemed to think that widening the physical terrain between Israel and its neighbor states -- without narrowing the psychic distance or the hatred between them -- was the answer. But here, it seems to me, the tininess of the spaces involved argues against them. For even if they were to take the whole West Bank in furtherance of this claim, it would not be such a very wide or comfortable or reliable margin, physically speaking, and the rest of the factors involved would turn dramatically worse. There is only so much the Israelis can gain from widening and occupying and arming the land they control between themselves and other Arab states.The rest can only be gained by defusing the hostility of those on the other side of the border, wherever it is drawn -- and where it is finally drawn will have much to do with that too.

In Israel last week there was a great waiting for Begin to fall. His personality and his mind set were thought unable to take him or his nation any further. The opposition talked a rather different line. Yitzhak Rabin observed to us, "I don't believe Jewish values are related only to boundaries." Shimon Peres said the trick would be to find a solution in regard to the Palestinians that answers to "our security and their desperation."

Part of that desperation is shared by these non-talking neighbors, and is expressed in the passionate arguments of each for the other's acknowledging the legitimacy of his existence and his right to exist, as a people, in the area. It was reflected in the near shout of a Palestinian woman recounting to us her entreaty to a Jewish militant with whom she had been in a recent skirmish: "I said: 'Please, we exist'." It is reflected in the Israelis' insistence that murderous language be removed from the PLO covenant before any conversations take place and that they cannot and should not deal with an organization committed to their extinction. They will not yield on this merely because informally it is widely said that the Palestinians have abandoned that wretched view.

In all this turmoil and unhappiness I thus found myself taking some comfort from the homey and personal character of the argument, even in its present meanness. For it is only at the human level that the formal statements and the commitments can take on any meaning anyway, and just as Sadat with a gigantic human gesture three years ago gave vitality and possibility to the idea of peace in the area, so now all the arguments over 242 and this covenant and that assertion and the other Camp David language can only be made constructive by some comparable gestures across those ragged and shell-scarred boundaries of both the land and the mind. That this hasn't happened yet doesn't mean that it still won't.

And I think it will because the moment is as right now as it is likely to be and the danger in letting it go by is huge, and the pressure to act will grow. Finally the paper with all those stately signatures on it and the fancy-schmancy military hardware can get you something, but only so much -- only short-lived, partial safety.For the security of the Israelis and the well-being of the region and the fulfillment of the Palestinians it will be new and better dimension to their human relationships -- or nothing.